Wine for communion, sign of peace, holy water fonts: will these parts of Mass ever come back?

Advent is a time to remember how deeply our faith is embodied, where we cannot experience the depth of our faith outside of the physical world i.e. places, things, people. . As Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, wrote in “The Blessed Virgin compared to the air we breathe”: “Gave God’s infinity / Dwinded to Infancy”. Contemplating the infinite nature of God alone can be nourishing but is ultimately insufficient. The fullness of God’s gifts is revealed when the heavenly and earthly kingdoms collide.

This is one of the reasons we have fought against the changes the Covid pandemic has made to the way we pray. The materials we collectively use and the people we pray with are containers for the sacred but have also become containers for the virus. After almost two years, the question that arises in many of our minds is: what is the future of worship, especially regarding the material things that are so dear to us? What is the future of the words we sing and say, the faces we look at and the hands we touch? And what is the future of the objects we share: the chalice of blessing and the holy water font?

What is the future of the words we sing and say, the faces we look at and the hands we touch? And what is the future of the objects we share: the chalice of blessing and the holy water font?

Despite our desire for unequivocal instruction, decisions on most things during this pandemic have forced us to weigh competing products. It is the same when one thinks of reintroducing elements of the Mass which carry a risk of spreading the disease. In the beginning, when a lot was unknown, we put the in-person worship on hold altogether. Slowly, as our knowledge of effective mitigation increased, we reintroduced parts of our worship that weren’t entirely risk-free, but determined to be worth it. Presenting the chalice to the congregation to receive the Blood of Christ is yet another situation in which we must weigh competing goods.

[Related, from 2020: I’m a priest and public health professor. Here’s my advice for rethinking the holidays this year.]

The importance of weighing risk with value is why, while they may have similar risks, sharing a glass of water with a friend is very different from sharing the chalice at Mass. We believe that the latter, while certainly not required for everyone, is an important sign of intimacy and connection with others who come to the Lord’s table, and that it evokes participation in suffering and destruction. resurrection of Jesus. If we didn’t believe so deeply in the power of symbols, it wouldn’t be so important. But we believe; and that’s how.

All the research on health risks systematically notes a gap between perception and reality. Yet the biggest challenge of this pandemic is the lack of good data on the real risk of a given activity. There have been concerns about transmission from a shared chalice since the acceptance of the germ theory at the end of the 19th century. Yet we have very few peer-reviewed studies on the subject, and even those studies, which were completed before Covid, looked at bacterial transmission rather than viral transmission. Yet the best evidence suggests that the risk of a shared chalice is greater than zero but negligible. Common tropes, such as the idea that alcohol disinfects the chalice, are not true, but neither is the suggestion that a shared chalice poses a significant risk to worshipers, especially those who are vaccinated and in good health. . The virus is also unlikely to spread through shared water fountains.

Common tropes, such as the idea that alcohol disinfects the chalice, are not true, but neither is the suggestion that a shared chalice poses a significant risk to worshipers.

As the aphorism says, “the absence of proof is not the proof of the absence”. New information about Covid is emerging every day, and new knowledge about the risk of sharing the chalice or exchanging the peace sign is possible. In this situation, we must reassess previous decisions. One of the infuriating aspects of this pandemic has been our inability to change behavior based on new knowledge. Ideally, we would be able to increase mitigation strategies such as masks and social distancing when the risk in a particular community is high, and modify those strategies when the risk is lower. However, most of us are impatient with ambiguity and resist the incorporation of new evidence that can change established opinion. We want the progression to a new normal to be linear, even though epidemic curves are often cyclical.

Sadly, the task of discerning the best course of action has been made more difficult by people on both sides who have not used their God-given gifts of reason. On the one hand, which seems louder if not more important in the church, we have people who refuse to acknowledge the very real risk associated with this pandemic or the evidence-based strategies we have to mitigate its spread. This group often exploits the uncertainty that constitutes scientific discovery to sow doubt about everything related to the virus. On the other side, we have people who have let themselves be consumed with fear and extolled the laudable goal of stopping the spread of the disease above all else. Both groups have contributed to the erosion of social trust. Nonetheless, I choose to believe that most people are still able to make reasonable decisions if given the information they need to do so.

The purpose of worship is to draw closer to God and to one another so that we can be sent out into the world to help others do the same. Covid has complicated this task, but these complications can only cause the division if we let them. Parishes which expect certain elements, as long as they act out of prudence and not out of fear, can be justified in their choices; the parishes which bring back elements, on condition of weighing the risks well and not simply to dismiss them, can also be justified.

It may seem like our lives have been altered by the pandemic for an interminable period of time, but the meager body of evidence on the real risk of bringing the chalice back to Mass should lead to humility rather than excess. of confidence. As we can make better decisions based on additional evidence, we must choose to interpret everyone’s actions as generously as possible.


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